‘How Do I Stop Feeling Like a Failure?’
Make space for this longing.
Flowers in a Vase (1866) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir
Thank you for your column. I read everything you write. The basic message is simple: to embrace it all, that the damage and the shame will always be there and that one can live well despite it, and that I’m a more than okay person, that self-compassion is key.
After reading a column or completing a good therapy session ( I have a killer, results-oriented, no bullshit therapist), I’ll gain perfect, fog-clearing clarity, I’ll shed some tears of self-compassion -- as a form of mourning, also, for a childhood that went wrong, for that little boy who wasn’t allowed to exist, with two highly unconscious, immature, self-centered parents, and for that adult that doesn’t give himself permission to be BIG. And in those moments, I see the potential for a better life, I can taste it, it’s within reach: an adult life, albeit with some limitations, but a solid life nonetheless, built on a stronger sense of inner stability, less reliant on external validation, where I can look in the mirror at the end of the day and say, “You left it all out there, you entered the arena today, you did not stay on the sidelines, and that alone is so damn courageous, it’s enough, you’re enough.”
But then the next morning, all of this evaporates. The judge and executioner are back to work, murdering any form of optimism I dared to exhibit for a second the night before. Also back are the accompanying anxiety and soul-crushing thoughts, that by now my well-trained brain sputters nonstop all day, and the rest of the symptoms -- dissociation, intense shame, numbing (no substances thankfully) , and hiding, abandoning myself, in many clever, complicated, exhausting ways, I know my mind is trying to protect me from the debilitating feelings of humiliation and exposure that I’ve carried as long as I can remember.
So now, I’m 46, a highly attuned emotional man, divorced, self-isolating, with plenty of great friends, yet feeling like a disconnected miserable person, feeling his life is passing him by, caught up in an endless game of comparison, where I'm somehow always worst off than absolutely everyone. And yet, my will is always strong to conquer these learned beliefs: I never look away from the truth, I don’t make up stories to make me feel better. I face my shit objectively, I don’t sugarcoat, I’m ruthless in assessments of self. I want more, I want to be better.
On the other hand, my basic natural drive was completely obliterated early on. I want little, other than continuity, certainty. And of course that makes me suffer immensely, because I have a bombastic personality, I’ve always been very hungry, I work very hard, I want shit. I want love, I want connection, I want pride. And at the end of each day, I achieve pretty much nothing, my mind games consistently put me back exactly where I was the day before: Zero progress. The potential is huge, yet getting squandered with precision and consistency.
I have a 7-year-old boy who lives with his mum, and I see him, and I’m amazed, that although he’s also highly cerebral and sensitive and kind and nuanced, as I was before him, he’s also undamaged, because his parents did not want to repeat the generational shitshow. And succeeded. I’m very proud of that. But that’s not enough.
I’m tired of the games, yet a part of me knows that I could continue this mind-fuckery forever. It’s an addiction like any other. I’m in an artistic field. I’m very passionate and motivated, but unfortunately the self doubt and lack of confidence can’t stay home 9 to 5. I bring all this ambivalence to my job , so the resulting creative work is lackluster, inconsistent, often immature, sometimes full of depth, but mostly falling short.
I have trouble understanding that I’m being hired to turn in consistent work, that I don’t need perfection, that my voice matters, and that people would like to see me have an impact with my work. I’m surrounded by kind people (I pick people well, I recognize integrity right away) who want to see me succeed, and they’re often left scratching their heads. The only one that refuses to be potent is me. Once I asked a friend of mine some complicated question about his photography process, he looked at me and said "Point, and shoot. End of story."
He's a big success today, needless to say. He's one of the lucky few, undamaged, with a healthy sense of self. I was blown away, that some people function like that. I couldnt stand his power, after a few years, he triggered my shame too much, I had to end our friendship. I miss him, he was a good person. I couldn’t stand the injustice of life.
So my career is wobbly, as are my finances. As is everything pretty much these days.
So my question is, why am I not able to make that central, single, life altering decision, to say STOP! To not hurt myself anymore, to stop self destruction (that I believe aims to punish not only me, but also the ones that hurt me), to adopt systematic, daily, self-soothing rituals (I luckily have one, which is an intense daily fitness practice), to decide to feel okay in the world, to want to have a better life, to stop underachieving, to feel deserving of more, to give myself permission to be a confident, competitive adult. When will I stop scanning the horizon for indicators that I’m worthy, that I haven’t fucked up (there’s not enough proof in the world to make me feel okay more than a couple days).
My rage comes out sometimes, bundled in shame but usually I'm pretty numb, disconnected. When will I be angry enough, to say, ENOUGH! Time to fucking jump in, full stop with the bullshit, let’s risk it all, time is short, let’s be visible and powerful and build on that, no matter the results?
Everything evaporates every morning. That’s just what it does. You rebuild from nothing every day.
When you haven’t made peace with your shame, guilt, anger, and longing yet, you refuse to experience that process of evaporation as natural and ordinary, just another feature of an animal’s daily life. The judge and executioner tell you what you parents told you: This is all your fault. This evaporation means you are uniquely fucked up. You have to start from nothing each day because you are broken.
Because you repeatedly blame yourself for your own humanity, you return to the same stuck places repeatedly. It’s like you’re a neglected kid again, looking for something to make you feel better. When you mention that your habits are addictive but at least you’re not turning to any substance, that reflects a lot of self-knowledge. You recognize that you’re looking for a fix. But when you go looking, you wind up in this intellectual morass where you can only connect to the negative emotions around your longing: sadness, self-hatred, frustration, confusion. Your attempt to process these things feels courageous, but it also kicks up a lot of shame. Your “ruthless assessments of self” lead to “feelings of humiliation and exposure.”
That’s a common problem for any kid who was ignored or punished when they expressed emotions or needs. Even facing down the truth about yourself, which is brave, can send you into a deep, dark hole. When you land in that hole, your experience of what you want and need is very child-like, too: What will fix me? Who will save me?When will I change? When will I finally get what I need? All forces of good that might save you are external – healthy, successful friends who know what they’re doing and don’t pity themselves, or kind friends who scratch their heads over what a mess you are. Everyone can see clearly what you’re missing. No one else struggles quite the way you do. This is a moral judgment, by the way, that also makes you merciless and unfair with these friends: Whenever you’re struggling, your shame tells you that these friends are powerful, they’re healthy, their lives are mostly effortless, and they pity you and look down on you from on high. That’s an inaccurate view. But your lack of compassion for yourself creates a lack of compassion for others. Your self-pity holds judgement in it: You are nothing. You don’t stand a chance. And the only people who might save you are way too busy and important to bother.
Still, some part of you nurtures this fantasy that an angel will appear one day and make everything better. You’ll get what you want. Some part of you believes that success and happiness will only be yours once some powerful, healthy external source will share some power with you. If that did happen, of course, you’d quickly resent that person because you’d believe that they saw you as inferior. This happens a lot with couples where one person is high functioning and the other is slightly less so. The more one partner succeeds, the more the other partner becomes paralyzed by their own shame. Every bit of “encouragement” from the successful partner makes the less successful partner feel even worse and more ashamed.
When you consider internal sources of ambition in your letter, they’re even more negative: “When will I be angry enough to say ENOUGH?,” you ask. You’ll have to become a punishing parent to save yourself.
So those are your choices, in your mind: Someone superior to you deigns to save you, or you beat yourself into submission. How could you possibly be motivated by either of these things? They’re both stories about your weakness as a human being. They’re stories rooted in your childhood. When you tell them, you return to that helpless, needy state where your parents are always turning away, walking out the door, refusing to let you speak, refusing to acknowledge you at all. You’re invisible, beneath their notice, less than nothing.
But what if you’re the angel and the savior? What if you’re the nurturing, patient, good parent? What if you’re someone who’s so good and lovable that your desires and needs are worth listening to? What if you could cultivate enough compassion for yourself that you’d naturally start to feel compassion for other people? Soon, you’d stop putting people on pedestals, encountering them as enviable and superior and healthy and also cold (because they have strong boundaries or concerns that are removed from your own). You’d start to see that other people have their own struggles and concerns that aren’t automatically a sign of superior emotional health or indifference.
There are a lot of layers to this, but I don’t want to make it more complicated than it needs to be. Because you’re mostly just looking for a way of reframing what you’ve learned and making it work for you in the moment. You’re mostly trying to feel something positive, instead of going back to that stuck place of self-recrimination and anxious longing. You’re mostly trying to stop looking for a fix (that makes you feel like a grabby little addict) and trying to start looking for emotional sustenance.
It’s hard. I feel like I have to re-learn how to sustain myself every other day, and the other days I fail miserably. Some days I go looking for a fix, and then I remember how to tap into some source that’s more transcendent than a fix. Other days, I start straight out of the gate on a path to transcendence. And other days, I just grind my gears.
I’ve had to forgive myself lately for the fact that this ride has been rougher than usual – for all of the expected global-pandemic reasons, sure, but for reasons that are personal to me, too. For the past year, I’ve been extremely engaged and creatively inspired. I’ve been writing more than ever, and experimenting wildly with the way I write. I’ve also been writing a book about my marriage, which has necessitated analyzing my marriage, day after day. All of this has been enormously fun and cool and also utterly destabilizing.
And I just figured out, after a full year of this, that I’m in this state because I’m taking big risks creatively. In other words, I’m not just reverting to some disordered state for no fucking reasons because I’m a broken person (MY OLDEST, FAVORITE STORY ABOUT MYSELF!), I’m welcoming chaos into my life for the sake of creating new things.
This is true for you, too. You think you’re starting back at zero every day, but what you’re describing to me is a life in which you challenge yourself CONSTANTLY. That’s who you are. So you’re actually moving up a level every few days, but it’s harder, so you just assume that you must be a failure. “This just gets more difficult!” you say to yourself. More proof that you’re pathetic and can’t handle anything (YOUR OLDEST, FAVORITE STORY ABOUT YOURSELF!).
You’re not starting from zero. Evaporation is natural, we all feel like we’re starting from nothing all the time. But what you’re really doing is taking on bigger and bigger risks. You’re tapping into your emotions and your truest desires day after day, and that digs up a lot of old behaviors. You set out to get lost and guess what? You get lost. You have to find your way home again. You don’t feel safe. And sometimes you feel shame about that, or you revert to old sensations of needing help or magic or connection or a fix. The need itself might tell you a story about how you are invisible, beneath someone’s notice, less than nothing.
I really do want to write a book about trying to be an artist and make art next. I know these things already exist! But I really love to learn as I go, to recognize that I’m feeling my way in the dark, to aim high and even fail and document that failure. That’s one of my weirdest talents: relishing my own failure. It has disordered roots, but that doesn’t mean it’s not precious. And I love the audacity of proclaiming myself an artist for the first time, you know? Because it’s so fucking pretentious and shameless and where is my art? That weird poetry bullshit I publish on a newsletter, that stuff?
And the answer is yes. That stuff. It’s not always perfect, but I love it. And it’s embarrassing. It has value to me in part because it embarrasses me. I move up a level in difficulty every single day I hit publish. I feel it. It’s a challenge. I’m not immune to feeling humiliated. And here’s the really crazy thing: The better you get at something, the more potential for widescale humiliation you face! And the deeper you have to dig, into the luminous, murky unknowns of your past and your psyche and your desires.
So this is what I want you to know: You and I aren’t so different. You’re not some self-pitying, ineffectual person. You’re a dramatic person, that’s all. You’re an artist who’s not afraid to look at the darkness inside you, and that comes not with just one can of worms but a whole motherfucking truck load of worms. You need to start to give your truck load of worms the weight it deserves, instead of acting like it’s all your fault.
My gear-grinding days are always fueled by some form of self-blame. Or, I’m stuck in some intellectual puzzle that I can’t put down. Maybe I’ve temporarily forgotten that the best way to solve an emotional Rubix cube is to throw it out the window, then lie flat on the ground and say to yourself: You’re fine the way you are. Stop working so hard.
That’s subsistence-level emotional management: You’re fine the way you are. Put down the puzzle. Crawl out from under the bed. Open the curtains, look out at the sky. Sit here and watch the clouds. Purchase a pack of flower seeds. Plant a flower in a tiny pot. Water it every day. Wait for it to sprout. Savor the waiting.
When I go looking for a fix, it springs from my desire for MORE. I want a lot for the first time in my life, and that’s hard to grapple with when you’re an anxious, lonely child more accustomed to contenting yourself with safety and closed borders. Daring to want more can make you feel very unnerved and unsettled. You’re raising the stakes: Do I really deserve more? Do I deserve to feel good? What an ingrate! Wanting more means that the hammer is about to fall, crushing you, crushing your spirit.
When you believe this, you can’t get angry and say ENOUGH! You don’t have any fire to, as you put it, “jump in, full stop with the bullshit, let’s risk it all, time is short!” The fire is too risky. You have to snuff it out. And that brings on a low level of depression that makes life gray and colorless. But if you try to reignite it, that brings out ALL of your emotions, and half of them are scary. You feel anxious. You might try to solve this anxious state by looking for a fix: approval, intrigue, some small connection, some distraction.
It’s a rough ride. You’re at war with your own desires. The key is to slow down. In order to work toward the big things you want, you have to live in a patient state. You have to set aside immediate fixes and staying focused on the big picture of what you want to build.
But this incites more anxiety: Who are you, to want to build something bigger?
And also, who will you be tomorrow? You know any good feelings you have today will evaporate, right? So you can be pretty sure that you’ll wake up in either a gear-grinding or jonesing-for-a-fix state. Or maybe you’ll just be a sullen mess. How many transcendent days will you need to string together, just to sustain the focus you’ll need to build something bigger?
And once you actually begin to build something bigger? Prepare to turn on it. Prepare to hate the fuck out of it. Prepare to hate yourself for hating it and turning on it.
I said I was going to make this less complicated, and all I’ve done is dig deeper and deeper into how hard it can be to sustain your optimism and belief in yourself, when you’re a very intense, dramatic, emotional artist. But I think there’s a reason for this long walk together. Because what you need the most right now, Hungry, is an acceptance of hunger itself.
Your hunger is making you hate yourself. You associate hunger with loneliness, and grief, and shame, and rage. You need to start to savor your hunger instead. You need to reconceptualize hunger as your life force, your drive, your power, your strength, the thing inside you that just keeps pushing you forward in spite of everything.
Your hunger is a form of transcendence. That’s something that our culture will never make you feel inside your cells, because our culture is all about defining hunger as weakness and lack. Our culture punishes the hunger out of us like an angry parent. I can’t even begin to tell you how many people live inside this state where even connection, between flawed humans, looks like a form of evil. People are so fucking conflicted out there. When you start to understand your own hunger, you’re experienced by other adults as a kind of wild animal that threatens to rip other people’s lives to shreds. It is madness, truly. Everyone is afraid of hunger. We’ve been taught, for the moment we were born, that our desires make us wretched and untrusthworthy and inadequate.
But once you scrape out your shame and banish the reigning guilty stories around hunger, you’ll be able to experience your hunger as a kind of pure light.
Hunger is not a lack of a fix, or answer, or love object, or savior, or punishing parent, or soothing friend. Hunger is not a need to become someone else, someone better, more lovable, more handsome, more capable, more talented, more focused. Hunger is not a void or a vacuum waiting to be filled.
Hunger is desire itself. Hunger is open space. Hunger is humility. Hunger is grace. Hunger is a place where the spirits of the dead can appear and inform what comes next. Hunger is being in the zone. Hunger is your happy place. Hunger is the brightest light in the universe.
When you can be at peace inside your hunger, that’s the ultimate satisfaction. To sit under a blue sky and say: I want so much more. I will always want more. I am a hungry, restless soul. I am an artist. I am someone who can see hunger in other people’s eyes and I know when it’s pure and good and worthy of my time. My hunger makes it possible for me to trust my instincts. My hunger lives at the heart of my generosity. My hunger makes me more soulful. My hunger makes me want to be a better person.
When you say you can sense when someone has integrity immediately? I can, too. It’s unnerving. I don’t even have to be that open to knowing the difference. It’s just there. When someone has an innocence at the core of their being? I feel that. I feel it because I have it. The mistake you and I have made in the past lies in not trusting our own integrity enough.
It’s the guilt and anger and longing and need for a fix that makes us doubt ourselves. We get confused because our art makes us want to believe in our hunger, but our hunger is so strong and we’re so conflicted sometimes that we think we’ll do something bad just to honor our desires. I think you probably need to look back on the past few decades of your life and ask yourself what you’ve actively done to hurt another person. Because idly wanting mild revenge on those who’ve hurt you and actively seeking revenge are a universe apart. You’re not someone who actively hurts people. Neither am I. I neglect people sometimes, but the second I notice that someone is getting hurt, I back up. I can’t destroy things. It’s not in my nature. I protect people from themselves, even when it means I’ll get less along the way.
Why is that important? Why is it important to notice that you recognize integrity and you also HAVE integrity? Because it shifts the story you have that at your basic essence as a person is bad and incorrect and evil and your desires are evil and your hunger makes you weak and bad. I’m telling you that you’re a good person, by nature, and you can trust your desires. You can experiment with your hunger. Will it feel bad and shameful? Yes, at times! Because feeling everything, feeling your desire for more, is seriously difficult and overwhelming! But once you learn to view yourself as the angel who will come to save you, time after time after time, you can view your hunger itself as beautiful and satisfying and good.
And then you can build something over the long haul. You can sit with your hunger and enjoy it and build from it.
That’s what your 7 year-old does. He doesn’t blame himself for wanting a thing. He pursues the thing with joy and dances with it and has fun with it and celebrates it.
I’m learning to do that: To want something strange and just enjoy wanting it. The important part of that experience is not muddying it with your preconceived notions of yourself as a lonely addict who needs a fix. You follow your desires in the direction of MORE. You build a bigger life not so that you’ll ARRIVE SOMEWHERE. You build a bigger life because building big things feels good right now. You are honoring your desires, that’s all. That is satisfaction in and of itself: Honoring how big your imagination has always been. The second you accept and embrace your hunger as a force of good in your life that brings you joy, that’s when your life is magically bigger. The room expands. The sunshine flows in the window. Everything is brighter.
Let me break it down for you in real time, okay? Just so you know how hard it is to reframe this problem, over and over. I feel satisfied with this answer, so far, but once I wrap up this column, I’ll still have to shift gears and focus my book. Just thinking about my book, which feels like a mess right now, incites a wave of shame and dread. My book is bad. I want it to be better. I’m hit by a massive wave of worry that it won’t be good enough. I take a breath. These sensations come back every day, and they scare me every single time. I take another breath. I remind myself, very explicitly: My hunger to make something great is all I need. This hunger is good for me. This hunger is joyful. Stay here. Stay hungry. You don’t have to fix this. You just get in there and work. This state is enjoyable. This is the feeling of being alive.
One other thing: Connection is important. It matters. Connection is only possible when you give yourself space to be hungry and be big. You have to feel how important connection is, and place it above all of the personality puzzles and shame puzzles that exist between two people. You have to set the shame aside and just feel the connection. Likewise, you have to put down the puzzle of what’s WRONG with you and your hunger, and just feel your hunger instead.
You just feel it. You sit with your hunger and you feel it. You are expanding now, can you feel that? Are you hungry? Because I’m hungry, too. I want more, and that feels great. This feeling is not weakness. Can you open your eyes wider and notice that THIS is the best moment? This is the destination. You’ve already made it. Every second you feel your desire without reprimanding yourself for it, every second you recognize desire itself is joy, you become joy itself, designed to share, built to grow things all around you, radiant and forgiving.
You feel your way here. There is no map. It’s not complicated. Feel your way.
And when you forget the way? Remind yourself to feel it again. Make space for this longing: I am lost. I am small. I want to be loved. I want to be strong. I want to feel lovable. I want to be seen clearly. I want to be brave. Feel that. I am a patient garden, full of seeds, waiting in the sunshine, waiting to grow.
It feels good to wait for the sun. It feels good to be a seed. Stay here and feel it. Everything you were as a lonely child is here. Everything you had then, all of the heartbreak, all of the longing, is right here. It’s not bad anymore. Let it stay. It’s glorious. Feel this warmth. This is your sunshine.
Heather Havrilesky is the author of What If This Were Enough?. The Cut’s Ask Polly column publishes every other Wednesday, and the new, free Ask Polly newsletter runs here on the other Wednesdays. Write to Polly: firstname.lastname@example.org.